Speech Minister Koenders at City Makers event

Speech Foreign Minister Koenders at the opening of the European City Makers event in Amsterdam, May 27, 2016.

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Ladies and gentlemen! Pioneers of the New Europe!
Is there any better place for you to meet than Amsterdam, Europe’s capital of innovation in 2016? And in Pakhuis de Zwijger, the hub and icon that propels this city forward? This place connects businesses and citizens who build everything from roof gardens to moving embankments that protect the city from rising water. It takes a bottom-up approach based on smart growth, start-ups, livability and digital social innovation.
This is what makes these such exciting times. As President Obama reminded us in his speech in Hannover last month, ‘If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn't know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, you'd choose today.’ And he’s right.
And although President Obama might disagree, I’d add that if you’d had the luxury of picking a continent, you’d probably choose Europe.
The European Union is the place where people can get an education, where they have a job, a house, a future. A place that combines a wealth of culture with cutting-edge design and innovation. A continent where we breathe clean air and drink fresh water. And where diversity, minorities and democracy are respected.
I hope you ask plenty of questions later during the Q&A. I want to hear about your work, your ideas about Europe, the cultural forces that are shaping our democracies and our conception of citizenship. I want to know what direction you think our European partnership should be going in.
Essentially, we all want the same thing: a society where we can live freely, where we take care of each other, be it at community level, national level or even European level. People want to help those around them, and play a role in their community. You, the City Makers who are here today, are living proof of this.
But this is a challenging time for our Union and its institutions – a defining time.
I believe it does us good to pause and reflect on the European Union, its predicament and our role in it. Especially now, when many Europeans are increasingly concerned about the direction the Union is taking.
We seem to be facing crisis after crisis. People are feeling the stress of globalisation and other rapid changes. Increasingly, people feel that our open society works well for the happy few. That raises questions. Questions like: ‘Who are those technocrats telling us what to do?’  People want to have real influence on the policies that affect them. As a citizen, you want to know and feel that we are working for you. Not for banks, not for a statistic like GDP, not for the people who can get away with evading taxes and breaking rules. But for you and your community.
Support for European cooperation can no longer be assumed. But our differences tend to be blown out of proportion.
Some of the benefits the European Union provides – like peace and freedom – seem at times to be taken for granted. Distrust between member states has grown. And many people’s confidence in the European institutions is alarmingly low. People don’t always trust the EU – or even their national government – to serve their best interests.
This doubt, or even deep distrust, has become part of Europeans’ political conversation about ourselves. I think this development poses a great danger for the future of European cooperation.
If what we see in the mirrors of the Berlaymont and Justus Lipsius, the buildings that house the EU institutions, is only our own glittering reflection, what can we expect people in Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome, Warsaw, Sofia, London and Berlin to see?
Europe is only Europe because of its people. People full of everyday goodness, decency and common sense. These are manifest in the way City Makers like you are redeveloping derelict property and brownfield sites, engaging in urban farming, building co-housing projects, and starting community enterprises that create prosperity and jobs.
Let me name just a few examples that inspired me tonight, examples provided by you:

  • Affordable housing is a problem for anyone with a low income. It has been in this very city as well.
    Which is why I look with much admiration to the initiative of A Varos Mindenkie (translated The City is for All) and Habitat for Humanity Hungary. By renovating several empty buildings of the Budapest municipality, these initiatives managed to arrange sustainable housing for a group of homeless people.
  • In 2014, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, set a great example by allocating 426 million euros as a ‘participatory budget’ for Parisians. This constitutes 5% of the city’s total investment budget! Each year, Parisians can send in project proposals that answer the simple question posed by the Mayor: What would you do to improve your city? I read about one initiative, La Pailasse. A platform for innovative product developers, used by a wide variety of scientists, entrepreneurs, students and designers. By forming partnerships with the corporate sector, they can actually create open source services for the benefit of many.
  • There are also examples of strong partnerships. IEWAN Strowijk [translated: Straw District] in the Dutch city of Nijmegen is such a unique example. Strowijk is a self-built, eco-friendly social housing project.

It was initiated in 2010 by a group of locals, and it received support by the Municipality and the Province Gelderland. Future residents and 200 volunteers joined forces to build these ecological buildings that were completed in May, 2015.
These are all great examples of what grassroots and local initiatives can achieve. But how can they be translated into politics? How can governments support them, and how can governments learn from them?
I see that you, the City Makers, are also exploring that question - through the ‘New Democracy’ series, which is on your agenda on Monday. I’m glad that New Democracy focuses on researching fundamental questions such as our system of governance and the role of citizens in their city, related to the ideal of democracy. It’s a way to identify the key issues for you and to influence urban decision-making.
Let me also add some food for thought on this question: how to strengthen democratic legitimacy? I’ll answer it from the perspective of the Netherlands Presidency.
To start, we should look at democratic accountability and the European Union in a fair manner.
Let’s not understate the democratic credentials of the European Union: the European Parliament is directly elected, and the members of the European Council all have democratic mandates.
But yes, improvements are possible and necessary. We have been pushing an ambitious agenda on this for several years.
First, to make the European Union relevant to people’s lives, it needs to produce results. People must feel empowered by the European Union, not inhibited. This is why it is so important for Europe to focus its activities where they add the most value. ‘Big on the big things, small on the small things’, in the words of Commission President Juncker. Let’s have the European Union do what it really must. So it can deliver. So it can create conditions where grassroots initiative can flourish.
To achieve that, we need above all to follow up on what we’ve agreed. Keeping promises and sticking to agreements should be the new normal in Europe. A deal is a deal, whether it’s about migration, the euro or climate change.
But for a liveable future, political commitments are not sufficient. We need your involvement. We cannot succeed without engaged Europeans like you. So we can reuse the metals in our smartphone screens, instead of endlessly mining them. Make responsible use of fossil fuels, other raw materials and energy. Make the circular economy a reality – for example  by growing mushrooms on coffee dregs, which I saw was one of your initiatives.
Second, results are important, but they’re not enough. We also need openness. This means transparent political decisions, reached through dialogue. We need to strengthen the role of directly elected politicians. Not only in the European Parliament, but also members of national parliaments: in relation to national governments; concerning their own role in the European decision-making process (think of the yellow and orange card procedures); and in working together with other parliaments.
Third, we need to strengthen ways to involve citizens and civil society directly, in the decision-making process. That’s why the European Citizens’ Initiative and the Citizens’ Dialogues deserve more attention. From us politicians, but also from you, active in the European cities, community-based and grassroots organisations.
I want to promote dialogue with European citizens because I believe that transparency and trust are inextricably linked, just as trust and support are linked. People will only support European cooperation if they feel they can trust it. And that can only happen if people feel informed, or at least feel they can be informed if they want to.
To be more transparent, the European Union needs first of all to make more information available. That’s why I asked for a database on the legislative process, so it is clearer for the general public where we are and what we do, thereby enhancing accountability of politicians and European institutions. We also need to be open about who’s involved in the legislative process and about organisations that express their opinions. That’s why I’m in favor of the European lobby register.
But simply making information available is not enough. The European Union also needs to organise its information better, explain it better, make it understandable – or even better, empower others to make information understandable.
This is why I challenged European citizens in January to ‘shine a light on the black box of Brussels’. The challenge was to use open data to create an app that would give greater insight into the decision-making process in Brussels.
And we didn’t leave it at that: we organised a series of diplomatic hackathons, the DiploHacks all around Europe. In Athens, Budapest, Bucharest, Bratislava, Prague, Stockholm, Tirana, Vienna and Brussels, our embassies provided a platform where young innovators like you could build apps to make the EU more open.
I would also like to invite you to the Transparency Camp on the first of June. This unconference will focus on open data, new technologies and policies to stimulate open government, make the European Union work for people and help them grasp how the EU institutions work. We need people like you to participate: you are closer to the ground, and can provide us with the views and opinions we need.
So I’m delighted that you’re presenting your agenda on Monday to the ministers responsible for urban development. This is how we as politicians can be inspired, energised and, when necessary, confronted by your call to action.
Citizens of Europe have the right to expect effective European responses. But we can’t expect Brussels to create heaven on earth for us.
We sometimes assume that our European inheritance, the values that are secured for us in Europe by the rule of law, are self-evident. We tend not to defend these things or to understand just how precious they are. Our rights may be inalienable, but they are not unassailable. Nothing is irreversible, nothing is inevitable; everything stands or falls with sensible politics. It’s up to us.
We have created a way of working together in Europe that is a genuine triumph. There has been nothing comparable to it in history. Unfortunately, these days it has few defenders.
It’s curious we need Obama to tell us how well we are doing.
As we confront the biggest challenges we have faced since the European project began, we must not forget what we have already achieved. We must not forget that we are still capable of action. The fundamentals of the European Union are strong. Europe is an economic and a political partnership which enjoys tremendous powers of attraction and influence.
There is a lot to fight and live for in Europe. Many people – thousands of refugees – are ready to risk their lives to obtain it. For them the European dream is real.
This is why the challenges we face must not make us forget our achievements. And you City Makers are living proof of our achievements. Of course you are preoccupied with the urgent issues of today, but these do not stop you from thinking about ideals and visions for tomorrow.
About a better quality of life and more inclusive communities. Your efforts are essential to sustain all that the people of Europe have accomplished. And the European Union’s task is to facilitate your efforts. Europe is not Brussels; it’s people like you.
Thank you.